“If we can face their bullets, we can face their words”

Hanan Ashrawi and Haider Abdel-Shafi believe that Europe is indispensable for the Middle East peace process and that Israel is going to lose its status as a strategic ally of the USA in the new unipolar world. (Read more…)

Hanan Ashrawi and Haidar Abdel-Shafi in Madrid, October 1991
© Getty Images

The Palestinians would like that the bilateral talks with Israel to be held in a European country, and that the European Economic Community [the European Union was created only in 1993] to have a more decisive role in the Middle East peace process.

That was the message given by Haider Abdel-Shafi and Hanan Ashrawi – respectively the head and the spokeswoman of the Palestinian delegation to the [October 1991] Madrid Conference – in a meeting with European journalists held in the Amman Hotel and sponsored by the United Nations.

Mrs. Ashrawi considers it inadmissible that Israel, whose trade with the European Community amounts to 78% of its total exports [The EU is sill the first partner for Israel with total trade amounting to approximately €29.4 billion in 2011] should insist on warding off the EEC from the peace process.“

The European Community is in a better position to understand the complexities of the region, to arbitrate disputes and to offer alternatives”, she said.

The Palestinians will take steps to ensure that, in addition to the sponsors of the Conference (the USA and USSR), Europe can also be called upon by one of the delegations to moderate. “But, since the invitations has to be accepted by all, Israel will certainly use its veto”, Mrs. Ashrawi added.

An English Literature Professor in Birzeit University [she founded the department in 1973 and remained a faculty member until 1995], in occupied-West Bank, who became famous in Madrid for her stunning press conferences, Hanan Ashrawi conceded that the Palestinian delegation was not interested in holding negotiations in Washington, one of the sites suggested.

The United States suspended the dialogue with the PLO, in 1990, and there are no institutions representing the Palestinians in the capital of the United States. The talks may be started on 20 November [1991], three days after American Secretary of State James Baker returns from a Far East visit.

“We would prefer a European country, a neutral territory; but Israel clearly does not want that”, said Mrs. Ashrawi. “The Israelis strongly protested against Madrid. In the meantime, Madrid is fill of good mementos. It has a Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.”

Palestinian delegates Hanan Ashrawi (R) and Faisal Husseini attend the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference (October 30): it was the first time that Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians all came together for negotiations
© Pascal Le Segretain | Sygma | Corbis

Irrespective of the city, the Palestinian delegation asked for guarantees that its members, on arriving in Jerusalem, would not be inspected, detained or interrogated by the Israeli authorities.

“We want to be treated as equals”, Hanan Ashrawi underlined. “”We are not asking for favors. It is very difficult for us to obtain visas, documents and permits. Our movements are scrutinized and we receive death threats.”

The Palestinian representatives have taken the threats seriously. The hotel where they were logged, in the center of Amman, was under a tight security apparatus. In the room where we the meeting with the journalists was held three hefty bodyguards were monitoring doors, corridors and elevators, checking every movement of the visitors.

The Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are “an urgent matter”. Freezing their construction/expansion is not a precondition, but Israel has to show that it is interested in making progress. “How can one initiate a negotiation process when the negotiation’s essence is being violated?, the Palestinian spokeswoman asked.

More calm than impulsive and dynamic Hanan Ashrawi, and expressing with touching politeness, Haider Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation, intervened to emphasize that the settlement’s enterprise “is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention”, which Israel steadfastly refuses to apply. “They [Israelis] are alone against the world”, he remarked with a sad smile.

Abdel-Shafi is a doctor from the Gaza Strip, admired by his compatriots. He was imprisoned by the Egyptians, former administrators of the territory, for having been one of the few belonging to the Arab Communist Party.

He also accepted a two States solution in Palestine, but that did not prevent him from being taken prisoner, several times, by the Israelis authorities.

Israel objected to the PLO participation in the Madrid Conference, but Hanan Ashrawi and other Palestinian delegates could not act without previous consent from Yasser Arafat (both in this 1991 photo). @All Rights Reserved

Israel objected to the PLO participation in the Madrid Conference, but Hanan Ashrawi and other Palestinian delegates could not act without previous consent from Yasser Arafat 

In Amman, the Gaza doctor proposed the establishment of inspection commissions, similar to those sent to Iraq by the United Nations, in order to verify on the spot that new settlements are not built, that lands are not confiscated, that infrastructures are not being installed, and that new or occupied houses are not being erected in Arab zones.

“The settlers may remain, but the Palestinian state wishes to have its own statute of residence and nationality”, remarked Hanan Ashrawi.

Answering a question posed by me concerning criticism of some Palestinians that the Palestinian delegation was starting off from a minimal position for the negotiations, accepting the boundaries of Israel prior to 1967 and the transitional period proposed by the United Nations, and not demanding the return of the 1948 war refugees, Abdel-Shafi explained:

“In my speech I did not deny the right of return of the Palestinian refugees of 1948. I invoked UN resolution 194. It is true that we accepted the 1967 borders [and not the Palestine partition plan of 1947], because this position is the most relevant and realistic at this time, and it was approved by the Palestinian National Council [in Algiers, in 1988]. Regarding the transitional period, I highlighted our objection that it should be permanent.

The Palestinian representatives also stressed the fact that they were in better condition than other Arab delegations for negotiating with Israel without any trauma.

“We know the Israelis better than anyone”, said Mrs. Ashrawi, who was born in Nablus, daughter of  Daoud Mikhail, one of the founders of PLO.

“We are not afraid of them. We know how to struggle with them. We know their tricks. We are used to negotiate when they close our schools and universities, when the Army kills one of our people and we want to retrieve the body. If we are nor afraid to face their bullets, we are also not afraid to face their words.”

Full of praise for James Baker – both recognize their mutual admiration (“He is the most persistent person that I have ever met”) – Hanan Ashrawi shows confidence that the United States is not going to abandon the peace process after having worked so much to promote it.

In her opinion, Israel has ceased to be a US strategic ally in a new unipolar world, and it made a mistake by provoking a confrontation between President [George H.W.] Bush and the American Congress. Israel, she added, must understand that, if it wishes to have a future in the Middle East, it has to stop being dependent on aid from the West and to make peace with the Arab neighbors.

Haidar Abdel-Shafi's speech in Madrid: "(...We, the people of Palestine, stand before you in the fullness of our pain, our pride, and our anticipation, for we have long harbored a yearning for peace and a dream of justice and freedom. For too long the Palestinian people have gone unheeded, silenced, and denied our identity negated by political expediency, our rightful struggle against injustice maligned, and our present existence subsumed by the past tragedy of another people. Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, for the greater part of this century, we have been victimized by the myth of "a land without a people," and described with impunity as "the invisible Palestinians." Before such willful blindness, we refused to disappear or to accept a distorted identity. Our Intifada is a testimony to our perseverance and resilience, waged in a just struggle to regain our rights. It is time for us to narrate our own story, to stand witness as advocates of a truth which has long lain buried in the consciousness and conscience of the world. We do not stand before you as supplicants, but rather as the torch bearers who know that in our world of today, ignorance can never be an excuse. We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past iniquities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality. We speak out, ladies and gentlemen, from the full conviction of the rightness of our cause, the verity of our history, and the depth of our commitment. Therein lies the strength of the Palestinian people today, for we have scaled the walls of fear and reticence and we wish to speak out with the courage and integrity that our narrative and history deserve. (...)" @All Rights Reserved

Haidar Abdel-Shafi‘s speech in Madrid:
(…) We, the people of Palestine, stand before you in the fullness of our pain, our pride, and our anticipation, for we have long harbored a yearning for peace and a dream of justice and freedom. For too long the Palestinian people have gone unheeded, silenced, and denied our identity negated by political expediency, our rightful struggle against injustice maligned, and our present existence subsumed by the past tragedy of another people. (…) For the greater part of this century, we have been victimized by the myth of “a land without a people,” and described with impunity as “the invisible Palestinians.” Before such willful blindness, we refused to disappear or to accept a distorted identity. Our Intifada is a testimony to our perseverance and resilience, waged in a just struggle to regain our rights.
It is time for us to narrate our own story, to stand witness as advocates of a truth which has long lain buried in the consciousness and conscience of the world. We do not stand before you as supplicants, but rather as the torch bearers who know that in our world of today, ignorance can never be an excuse. We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past iniquities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality. We speak out, ladies and gentlemen, from the full conviction of the rightness of our cause, the verity of our history, and the depth of our commitment. Therein lies the strength of the Palestinian people today, for we have scaled the walls of fear and reticence and we wish to speak out with the courage and integrity that our narrative and history deserve. (…)

I asked Professor Ashrawi whether the Madrid Conference would have been possible without the Gulf War [an American decision after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990; the PLO lost support from the Arab states due to Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein’s misadventure], and she replied: “Perhaps an international conference would have been possible.”

“Before the war, the course of events was already heading for the tragedy (Arab divisions; growing anxiety of the Palestinians)”, she said. “After the war, the United States came to the conclusion that stability was necessary, but that it was not viable unless the main cause of the conflict in the region – the Palestinian problem – was not solved.”

Hanan Ashrawi acknowledged that it is dangerous to cherish hopes for peace. But she confessed that she could not stop feeling enthusiastic. Looking tired and holding back her tears, she added: “We are recognized for the first time as a people.”

“That is no euphoria. Were are not looking for immediate results, but we want to see tangible changes. We cannot negotiate so long as our people are held hostage by Israel.”

Self-assured, always holding a cigarette, Hanan Ashrawi became a very popular figure – and she is aware of it. “It is touching and I feel embarrassed, but I do not see myself as a leader.”

In Madrid, she confessed having wept with great emotion in the first days. She told me that her husband,  Emil Ashrawi, a Christian like her, photographer and theatre director, who had replaced her in the household chores and in educating their two daughters (Amal and Zeina), had been unable to cope with all the visits that he received every day.

He had hit upon a great idea that, on the day of Madrid Conference, young Palestinians should decorate the Israeli soldiers’ vehicles with olive branches.

Nevertheless, what moved her most was a fatwa, a kind of theological edit, by a Jenin Sheikh (Muslim religious leader), on the West Bank, who authorised her – a woman and a Christian – to represent the Palestinians. “I’m a simple person”, she finally realized..

Then president George HW Bush at a joint news conference with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev in Madrid in 1991
© Associated Press

This article, now revised and updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO on November 9, 1991 – the translation, slightly changed here, was published in a UN special edition called “Peace in the News”

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